“It’s just an old cliché,” Debbie Wasserman Schultz told Politico, “but you can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” That’s not exactly the problem for Democrats in their ongoing feud over the social-engineering reconciliation bill, but it’s as close to self-realization as Democrats will get. Months of infighting over that bill and the presumably easy win they could have had on the bipartisan infrastructure bill has left the party reeling and badly split.
The question now is whether passing anything would “put points on the board” for Democrats — and whether it’s even a possibility:
The window is rapidly closing on Democrats’ once-in-a-decade opportunity to clinch their agenda.
The party has just a few short weeks to land a deal on its massive social spending bill before returning to a government shutdown deadline and a debt ceiling standoff in the creeping shadow of the midterm election. Democrats are under enormous pressure to finalize Biden’s domestic agenda while they hold full control of Washington, but also to use their power to enact policies they’ve championed for 10 years or more.
The challenge of cutting a deal that can pass is squeezing Democrats’ tiny majorities: They need buy-in from all 50 senators, including reluctant moderates Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, and nearly all their House members. Democrats also recognize, though rarely admit aloud, that this Congress might be the last time in a long time that they control the House, Senate and the White House.
“We have to move from performative losing to enacting laws. And this is our moment to demonstrate that we actually are serious about enacting the things that we run on, not just talking about them every two years,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). “It’s just a fact that the trifecta doesn’t come around very often, and doesn’t last very long … whatever our window is, we have to understand that it’s fleeting.”
Where to begin with this slow dawning of reality? In the first place, Democrats and especially Joe Biden badly miscalculated in their sharp shift to the Left, pressure or not. The math of this session of Congress made it clear that in order to succeed, Biden and his team needed to find ways to get Republicans engaged on their agenda. That should have prompted the White House to tone down expectations in this session, especially to its progressive wing, which demanded the kind of brute-force majoritarian strategy that has left Biden twisting in the wind on his legislative agenda.
Instead, Biden got pushed into going The Full Bernie, apparently barely cognizant of the positions of his own caucus members in both chambers. Biden and the White House set the expectation that they could deliver on both the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the radical reconciliation bill, against all obvious obstacles. Biden himself tied the two together after the White House had gingerly disconnected the two, hoping to get at least one win in 2021.
This isn’t a case of the perfect being the enemy of the good. It’s a case of the fantasy being an enemy of reality, or perhaps more accurately, Biden and his team getting high on their own messaging supply. Biden didn’t get elected with any mandate other than not being Donald Trump and to return Washington to a pre-Trumpian sense of normalcy. The media complained loud and long about Trump’s ego, and with justification, but Biden’s self-concept of being the next LBJ and FDR all wrapped up in one after barely eking out a win last November — and almost losing the House in the process — demonstrates an ego bloated beyond rationality.
Democrats have good reason to try to get “points on the board,” The Hill notes today. As Biden’s gasbaggery puts his job approval in free-fall and his agenda stalls out completely, voters appear ready to put an end to Democrats’ ineptitude and hand control of Congress back to the GOP:
Once hopeful that they could defy the typical midterm shellacking dealt to the party in power, a series of foreboding developments has rocked that sense of optimism. President Biden’s approval ratings are in free fall, his key legislative priorities have stalled and, just this week, Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) announced that he would retire, making him the first senior House Democrat to bow out ahead of the midterms.
In conversations with The Hill in recent days, several Democratic strategists and operatives expressed a growing sense of pessimism about 2022. Each one said that the party’s recent decline is reversible. Still, most offered a sober assessment of Democrats’ position heading into the final stretch of 2021.
Democrats have virtually no room for error in 2022. Republicans need to flip only five seats in the House to recapture control of the lower chamber, and they stand to benefit right off the bat from redistricting in key states and the historical maxim that the party of a new president tends to lose ground in midterm elections.
And while the fight for the Senate majority appears less dire for the party – the GOP is defending more territory than Democrats, including five open seats – a net loss of even a single seat next year could cost Democrats their control of the chamber.
For context, the governing party would normally lose 30-40 House seats in a first-term midterm. Usually, however, that’s because a first-term president has coattails long enough to add House seats in his election victory. In a House chamber this evenly split, a 30-seat loss might be on the far edge of expectations for the GOP, even in a red-wave election. But that might be enough for Republicans to pick up a net gain in the Senate, which would then checkmate progressives for the next two years — and Biden along with them, unless he figured out math in the intervening time.
The question underneath Politico’s “points on the board” report is whether Democrats can even pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill at this point. The reconciliation bill is pretty much dead; Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer will have to pull out too many programs to get Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema on board to keep progressives in place to pass it. Their idea to play a budgetary bait-and-switch to keep the programs while artificially counting fewer years has already been repeatedly rejected by Manchinema. Pramila Jayapal insists that progressives will not prioritize their agenda and instead demand that it pass in its entirety or not at all.
Once the reconciliation bill dies, so too will the bipartisan infrastructure bill. Progressives will abandon it out of spite. But even if it did pass, credit for that would go to the Republicans that would come out in the House to support it, assuming any do after Biden’s stupid insistence on linking the two bills. By the time that bill passes, it’s going to feel very much like a defeat rather than a victory for Democrats, and the bitterness it will cause within their caucus will resonate for a very long time to come.
The only thing perfect about this situation is how it demonstrates Biden’s incompetence as an executive and party leader. And the only good that may come out of it for Democrats is that their upcoming beating in the midterms might finally force them to recognize that their sharp left turn is taking them straight into a dead end.